God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs, by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller. New York City: Viking Books, 2017. 400 pages.
Christian and Jewish believers have turned to the book of Proverbs for real-world wisdom for millennia. But properly understanding this sacred collection of wise sayings may prove trickier than most readers realize.
Thankfully author and longtime Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller with his wife Kathy Keller has written God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs to provide some practical and much-needed guidance. In this yearlong devotional divided into easily digestible one-page daily readings, Tim and Kathy Keller help to bring into focus two important issues: the purpose of Proverbs and how Proverbs relates to the rest of the Bible.
Understanding Proverbs begins with learning what it is not. The Kellers write in their introduction: “Proverbs is not a set of ‘simple steps to a happy life’ for quick consumption.” Rather, this collection of wisdom offers holistic guidance on living life according to a God-centered worldview. Thus readers should seek to understand the meaning of the book as a whole.
Those who treat Proverbs like a checklist for success – an acute temptation given our contemporary “self-help” culture – will undoubtedly encounter frustration since the book seemingly contains contradictory instructions. Instead, the Wisdom is thus required to comprehend and apply specific words of wisdom. Writing in the entry under the heading “What is a Proverb?” on January 1, the Kellers note:
Modern people do not have a category for proverbs. They are neither absolute commands nor promises, and often they are partial. That is, they need to be put beside other proverbs on the same subject to get the full picture.
With that end in mind, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life deals with gaining knowledge in seven major areas during the course of the year: “Knowing wisdom,” “Knowing God,” “Knowing the heart,” “Knowing others,” “Knowing the times and seasons,” “Knowing the spheres,” and “Knowing Jesus.” Within these topics, a series of entries unpacks verses one or two at a time.
Another important characteristic of Proverbs vital for Christians to realize is its biblical context and unique place within Scripture. For example, even within the genre of wisdom literature, Proverbs is distinct from neighboring Psalms. Each enjoys a separate but important place in the Bible.
“If the Bible were a medicine cabinet, Psalms would be the ointment put on inflamed skin to calm and heal it,” the Kellers wrote. “Proverbs would be more like smelling salts to startle you into alertness.”
At the same time, the Book of Proverbs contains one key characteristic in common with the rest of the Bible. Specifically, it helps to tell the story of Jesus Christ and the Gospel. “While we call Proverbs a ‘book,’ it really is one chapter in a much larger book—the Bible—which presents, through all its various parts and narratives, a single, coherent story,” the Kellers point out.
How should God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life be used by Christians? Tim and Kathy Keller suggest working through the devotional in a group context. Since Proverbs was designed to teach wisdom to young people of faith, the authors recommend choosing “one or more friends” with whom to read the devotion. In addition, each entry contains a prayer and custom application questions appropriate for group study. The introduction also lists two questions to consider after each entry:
1. Where in your life or the life of someone else have you seen this observation illustrated?
2. How can you put this observation into practice—in thought, attitude, word, or deed?
Christians from all walks of life have much wisdom to gain by better understanding Proverbs. Surely few other guides would assist students of the Bible to navigate Proverbs as well as Tim and Kathy Keller. God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life will surely benefit those willing to invest even a small amount of time studying either individually or with other Christians.